MLB Wild Card Games Preview

It’s October, one of the best sports months of the year.  This past weekend featured the Ryder Cup, football is in midseason form, NASCAR is in its Chase for the Cup, and basketball is just around the corner.

But most of all, October means its the baseball postseason.  The playoffs start tonight with the first Wild Card Game, the AL edition between the Orioles and Blue Jays in Toronto.  The Wild Card round is one game between the two wild card winners in each league, leaving little margin for error. The winners of each Wild Card Game will advance to their respective league’s Division Series.

American League Wild Card Game
Baltimore Orioles (89-73) at Toronto Blue Jays (89-73)
Tonight, 8:08 pm ET, TBS

Tonight’s matchup is the battle of the birds, a pair of division rivals from the AL East, who finished tied for second in that division behind the Boston Red Sox.  Toronto has homefield advantage tonight in front of what should be a boisterous crowd at the SkyDome.  The Blue Jays won the season series 10-9, including winning six of 10 in Toronto, although the Orioles won two out of three in a series at the SkyDome last week.

The winner of this game will play the Texas Rangers in the ALDS.  If it is Toronto, it would be a rematch of last year’s epic series, while Baltimore defeated Texas in the 2012 AL Wild Card Game (the first year of this format).

This game features two of the most potent offenses in the game.  Toronto, led by Edwin Encarnacion (.263 BA, 42 HR, 127 RBI) and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson (.284 BA, 37 HR, 99 RBI), is fifth in the AL in runs (759) and third in homers (221).

Baltimore, led by Mark Trumbo (.256 BA, MLB-leading 47 HR, 108 RBI) and Manny Machado (.294 BA, 37 HR, 96 RBI, 105 runs), is only seventh in the AL in runs (744) but leads the majors in home runs (253, the fifth most in a season ever) and is second in the AL in slugging (.443).

Veteran pitcher Chris Tillman (16-6, 3.77 ERA) will start for Baltimore, facing young gun Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37 ERA) for Toronto.  Tillman is 1-1 with a 3.79 ERA in four starts since a DL stint (two good, one average, one bad), and had one good and one bad start in the 2014 postseason for the O’s.

Stroman was strong for the Jays in last year’s ALDS against the Rangers, but struggled in the ALCS against the Royals.  Interestingly, Stroman has lowered his ERA from 4.63 to 4.37 since August 21, but is 0-5 in eight starts over that stretch due to a lack of run support.

While Stroman this season has over a half-point higher of an ERA than Tillman this season, sabermetricians will be interested to know that Stroman actually has a better FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching) at 3.71, compared to Tillman’s mark of 4.23.

This game, as a lot of baseball playoff games do, may come down to the bullpens.  The Blue Jays, whose ‘pen pitched to a 4.11 ERA this season, are led by 21-year old closer Roberto Osuna (he’s 17 days older than me; 36/42 saves, 2.68 ERA).

The Orioles relievers have a 3.40 ERA, the best among AL playoff teams.  Closer Zach Britton (47/47 saves, 0.54 ERA) is a Cy Young contender (rare for a reliever), while Brad Brach (10-4, 24 holds, 2.05 ERA) is nearly as strong as a setup man.

These two teams are very even entering this Wild Card Game, and even have identical 89-73 records.  In a one-game scenario such as this one, home-field advantage can play a huge role in determining the outcome, and historically has in the MLB postseason.

That being said, neither team has a statistical advantage, and we saw in last year’s playoffs how incredible the atmosphere at the SkyDome can be when Canada’s team is fighting for their playoff lives.

Prediction:  The Blue Jays will win and advance to the ALDS


National League Wild Card Game
San Francisco Giants (87-75) at New York Mets (87-75)
Wednesday, 8:08 pm ET, ESPN

Tomorrow night’s game in the National League features the Giants, who have won the World Series the last three even-numbered years (2010, ’12, ’14), and the New York Mets, who represented the NL in the World Series last year, losing to the Royals in five games.  The Mets won the season series against the Giants, 4-3.

The winner of this game will face the Chicago Cubs, the favorite to win the World Series, in the NLDS beginning Friday.  If it is the Mets, it would be a rematch of last year’s NLCS, a Mets sweep.

The Giants were 57-33 in the first half, and had the best record in MLB at the All-Star break, but struggled to a 30-42 record in the second half and clinched their playoff spot on the season’s final day.  The Mets were 15-7 in April and 18-11 after Sept. 1, but 54-57 in between.

This game features a matchup of two aces, as Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74 ERA) of the Giants faces Noah Syndergaard (14-9, 2.60 ERA) of the Mets.  Bumgarner, one of baseball’s best postseason performers, pitched the 2014 Wild Card Game for the Giants, throwing a four-hit shutout on the road in Pittsburgh, and in 14 postseason games (12 starts) has a lifetime 2.15 ERA, as well as two series MVPs (2014 NLCS and World Series).  MadBum is one of baseball’s great postseason veterans, and yet he is only 26 years old.  However, in Bumgarner’s last nine starts of the season, he struggled to a 4.66 ERA.

Syndergaard pitched to a 3.32 ERA in last year’s postseason for the Mets as a rookie in four appearances (three starts), and is 4-2 with a 2.06 his last seven starts.  The Mets have had to be careful with the right-hander, nicknamed Thor, all season due to elbow concerns.

The Mets bullpen has a 3.53 ERA, led by closer Jeurys Familia (51/56 saves, 2.55 ERA) and setup man Addison Reed (40 holds, 1.97 ERA, 7.00 K/BB ratio).  The Giants bullpen ERA is 3.65, but this unit struggled mightily down the stretch, as the ‘pen was responsible for 13 losses in the second half.  This includes Santiago Casilla losing the closer’s role after nine blown saves.

Offensively, the Giants have the highest team batting average of any NL playoff team at .258, although no qualifying hitter is better than .289 (Hunter Pence).  Brandon Crawford (.275 BA, 12 HR, 84 RBI) leads the team in RBI, Brandon Belt (.275 BA, 17 HR, 82 RBI) leads the team in homers, and team leader Buster Posey (.288 BA, 14 HR, 80 RBI, 82 runs) leads in runs.

The Mets have a .246 team batting average, the fourth worst in the NL, and the worst among all 10 playoff teams in either league.  Yoenis Cespedes leads the active roster in essentially nearly every category (.280 BA, 31 HR, 86 RBI), while the rest of the team has been hot and cold on offense all year, as the team ranked fifth worst in the NL in runs (671) and fourth worst in hits (1,342).

Like the AL Wild Card Game, both teams in this game have identical records.  The Mets will be at home at Citi Field, which also had a fantastic postseason atmosphere in 2015.

While the Mets are at home, to me the Giants still have the more impressive roster, and while Syndergaard should be good for the Mets, it’s only fitting to expect Bumgarner, with his postseason history, to be even better.  This should be a low-scoring game, but its hard to see the Mets offense scoring much, if any, against Bumgarner.

Prediction:  The Giants will win and advance to the NLDS.


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